ArteEast is pleased to present an interview with artist Wiame Haddad as part of our Artist Spotlight series.
Wiame Haddad (born 1987) is an artist who lives and works in Paris. She received her undergraduate degree in Fine Arts from La Cambre in Brussels and graduated with an MFA from ESAD in Valenciennes. Her practice is centered around photography and experimental film.
Her recent projects include: Hors-Titre, Cinéma du Réel, Tiff Toronto, Open City Documentary London (2022), À propos d’une chambre occupée (vision d’une soirée d’octobre 1961), If a tree falls in a Forest, at les Rencontres de la photographie d’Arles (2022) and Cinima 3, LE 18, Marrakech (2020), In absentia, Galerie Eric Dupont, Paris (2021-2022), Those who remain, In Absentia and Objects of Tazmamart, Qalqalah: plus d’une langue, at Le CRAC Occitanie, Sète (2021).
ArteEast: Can you tell us about your work in general and the main themes you return to in your practice?
Wiame Haddad: I consider my work to be an ongoing photographic and cinematographic research project. I investigate ethical issues and experiment with formal approaches. My research is furthermore imbued with a yearning for the unseen. I focus on forgotten entities within history and my work emerges from the emptiness left by these “invisible bodies.” I develop artistic, sculptural photographic and cinematographic projects in which the body becomes a site of vacillating tension between the personal and the political. I question the idea of the image especially, thinking about how much of a story a single picture can tell.
AE: A Propos d’une Chambre Occupée (Vision d’une Soirée d’Octobre 1961) is a work that consists of a photograph and a video. It incorporates both extensive historic research as well as elaborate set construction and design. Can you tell us about the historic significance of this piece, and your artistic approach with regard to development and creation?
WH: October 17, 1961, known today as the Paris Massacre, occurred during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). At that time, there was a racist curfew set in place in Paris that targeted Algerians. The FLN (Algerian Liberation Front) called for a peaceful protest to take place on October 17, 1961. While the exact numbers are unknown, thousands of Algerians are believed to have come out in support of this protest. The French police responded by brutally massacring an again unknown number of people. There was an overall silence that followed this horrific event. The local French news lied about what occurred and only now, after 60 years, people are beginning to actually talk about the atrocities that took place. France is still in denial about its own colonial history.
What first got me interested was the fact that I only found out about this night about 15 years ago. I am always curious to dig deeper into the powers of authoritarianism to silence and erase their violence and opposition in the face of political struggles. Even until 10 years ago, there was very little information that one could find about this event. As a photographer, I naturally began looking for photos of that night. The few that I found were images that were taken by Elie Kagan, a French leftist journalist. My research was an attempt to understand that era despite the emptiness.
I never wanted to reproduce violent images that I had already seen. I wanted to create an image out of the existing void. I didn’t want to create an abundance of images around this event, instead, it was an exercise in constructing a single image that attempted to encapsulate the nuance and depth of this historical event.
This is where I came up with the idea of the room. I remember feeling that it would be interesting to experience the moment just before protesters went out in the street. Initially I had thought to photograph a completely empty space that alluded to the fact that its inhabitants had just left. To create a scene in which the viewer assumed that at any moment someone would walk back into the frame and continue living in their space.
I was thinking about this photograph in a cinematographic way, as a suspended image. I looked into ways of suggesting that this space was frozen in a moment, and that’s why, for example, I included wet socks that were drying, or unfinished food.
I was somewhere between photography and film, and this is where I came up with the figure of the man, who is exiting the room. He is between life on the interior and the protest on the exterior. There are various elements in the room that range from personal photographs and clothes, to newspapers and books. In parallel to this lived interior, there is also a piece of construction wood that I include in the top left corner of the frame, right outside the door to this room. This is a conscious revelation that this is a built set and not a photograph documenting a reality. I wanted to point to the constructed nature of the image (even archival photos) and beyond that, to gesture towards images that are missing altogether. It is about creating an image out of the absence of photos of these moments.
I incorporate many references of major influences from artists and filmmakers. There are small nods to them throughout the photo. For example, Jean Luc Goddard’s film Le Petit Soldat, (1963) which was censored in France, helped open a lot of creative blocks that I had while making this work. There is a little toy soldier on the sink as an ode to that film.
I make another reference to a quote by Cocteau: “Les miroirs feraient bien de réfléchir un peu plus avant de renvoyer les images.” (Translated to English as: “Mirrors should think longer before they reflect.”) In my photograph, there is a mirror behind the door. I didn’t want it to reflect anything, but it is symbolic as a witness. It is also another lens that faces the camera’s own lens to remind us that we project what we know and as well as what we don’t know about that moment and that event. I want to create active images that push people to think and question since we are flooded by passive images everyday.
Finally, I wanted to address the exterior from the interior. There is struggle in the mundane everyday life that refuses victimization. I did not want to portray the expected violence of that night, but the depth of a life that did not return home.
The experimental film that I made alongside the photograph was instinctive, it is an extension of the photograph. I am interested in the dialogue between film and photography as a whole. While we were on set working and creating the photo, I had an urge to document the process. We took Super 8 footage of everything. The film starts out in color and has a documentary feel to it; as if the viewer is taken into this room from the 60s. Towards the end however, the footage shifts to black and white, and the viewers are shown how this room is part of a set, that is was all constructed. They witness the work that went into the making of this historical image. Ultimately, the film is in a way an archive of the photo, which itself is a reconstructed fragment of this history.
AE: Your three photography series, Ceux qui restent, Objets de Tazmamart, and In Absentia, emerge from the same research about memories of political prisoners in Morocco. Tell us about this overall project and your views on how to represent and tell the stories of human beings who have undergone different forms of violence.
WH: I was in my last year of studies when I began working on this project. I was visiting Morocco and one night at dinner with friends, I met a man who told his story about his own incarceration in a Moroccan prison. Although I grew up in Morocco, I was not aware of the political struggles of the 60s-70s and the brutality that the state exercised on whoever it saw as their opponent. Again, I encountered this great silence around this History and I began regularly returning to interview different marxists, leftists and old militants who were imprisoned during the rule of King Hassan II.
At first I approached this project and those I met as people who were prisoners. Eventually I realized that they were much more than that; they were fighters who continued their struggle because they posed a threat to the status quo of the totalitarian Moroccan state. They dared to desire a different Morocco, and many paid the price with their lives.
There are 3 parts to this overall project. Part of my process in any new work is extensive reading and researching. The photography part of Ceux qui Restent emerged from researching the political landscapes of that time. They consist of portraits of the former militants and political prisoners that I spoke to as well as general landscapes. There was a lot of formal research within the images. I wanted to photograph elements amidst the architecture that appeared as though they could be bodies. I ended up showing this series in a reconstructed model of a jail cell across the street from the actual police station whose basement was a secret torture site in the Hay Mohammadi neighborhood of Casablanca.
While I was working on the first part of the project, I had read about Tazmamart, a secret prison that Hassan II put in place in a former French colonial military base. It was the most brutal site of incarceration. The prison only had dark windowless cells for solitary confinement. The prison’s existence and location were unknown to the country for decades and many who were sent there did not make it out alive. The prisoners that survived there were imprisoned for 20 years in solitary confinement. I was able to meet some survivors of the prison and the discussions we had were extremely heavy. I found myself questioning how to engage with this immense trauma.
Many of the released prisoners talked about objects that they had created while imprisoned, and that they had to sneak out with them once they were freed. In the series Objets de Tazmamart, I photograph some of these objects to bring to life some of the only remnants of that horrific site that has now been torn down.
These objects also represent the passage and recording of time. One of the photos is of a rosary made from olive and date pits. Olives and dates were rarely given to prisoners to eat, only on special occasions or religious holidays. So imagine how long it took for that prisoner to gather these remains and the effort it took to slowly make this object over the course of months or years. Another object is a pair of small textiles torn from their blankets that a prisoner had used to weave their thoughts, poems, and other writings.
Again, we see these people’s strength and resistance in the face of intangible time is palpable through these objects that may seem insignificant at first.These objects can be seen as the only remaining pieces of evidence from a crime scene that has been erased from existence.
After about 5 years of researching and speaking with different survivors who had been imprisoned, I arrived at the last phase of this project: In Absentia. In these photographs, I take a more formal approach to portraying my research. I took casts of fragmented body parts of some of the people I had spoken to and photographed the sculptures that were based off of them. This was only possible after building trust with them over the course of years. Even behind this image is the whole process of creating it: taking a cast, making a sculpture, posing the object in front of a blank background and finally we see the last stage, the photograph. The white sculptures are photographed behind a white wall and this is alluding to the blank page and the possibility to rewrite and even, write the stories that have not yet been told.
AE: Each of your projects have taken multiple years to complete. In a fast-paced contemporary art world that values yearly creative outputs and yearns for the constant consumption of new work, how do you understand your own methodologies of production?
WH: We see floods of images all around us everyday and I think my work is about stopping and trying to understand what has been happening behind the image, to read about it, speak to people and come to my own conclusions. It’s about learning the history behind the images and this takes time.
Formal research is also very important for me; this is a different kind of research. I am watching films, looking at fine art photography, watching the moon, and taking in life in general.
I attempt to incorporate both sources of research within whatever project I am working on. This process can be filled with anxiety, because there is no guarantee that you will be able to create an image that merges both these sources in a way that encapsulates the urgency of it all. Sometimes we lose ourselves in searching for understanding.
AE: What and who are some of your major creative influences, and why?
WH: As I mentioned above, I’m interested in Art Historical and Historical references within references. Jeff Wall is a photographer whose practice I greatly admire. In the A Propos d’une Chambre Occupée (Vision d’une Soirée d’Octobre 1961) photo, I reference Jeff Wall’s The Destroyed Room, which itself was referencing The Death of Sardanapalus, a painting by Delacroix. In my photograph, the door is in the same placement as in Jeff Wall’s and I also incorporate red paint on the wall which is found in his photo. Another ode to the constructed nature of the photograph within Wall’s overall practice is done through the two-by-four piece of timber that is seen above the existing figure in my photo.
There are so many photographers that have influenced my practice. One in particular is Taryn Simon. I really appreciate her strong formal approach to her images as well as her deep investigations into the blindsides of American history.
When I was attending fine arts universities in Europe, we were taught that Art History is limited to Western Art History. I felt that something was missing and I attempted to look and search for artists and creatives from the Global South. I knew that there had to be many that resisted and spoke out through the form of art, film, literature, and music. Once graduating, I finally came across and worked with artists from other generations.
For example, the film De quelques événements sans significations made in 1974 by Mostafa Derkaoui is an immensely powerful film that was prevented from being screened or shown to the public. The film was almost lost entirely. Léa Morin is a researcher and curator who came across the film several years ago and led its restoration. The film was essentially reborn and had its debut at the Berlinale in 2019.
Seeing this politically charged experimental film that was made in Morocco in the 1970s really blew my mind, and these are the kinds of histories and creative legacies that I am working with now.
AE: What are you currently working on and do you have any shows or projects upcoming in 2023-2024?
WH: I am working on a few projects that include another film in dialogue with a photograph. It’s too soon to share more details.
This winter, in January or February, I will show a new experimental installation as part of a group show at 32bis in Tunis, curated by Nadine Atallah.
WIAME HADDAD ONLINE